Death by Political Exclusion

What struck me as most profound in Larsen’s End of Dreams was not the human-shape figures themselves or the eerie dark-blue shadings of the images, but the verticality of the concrete figures—suspended from the wooden raft as if they were corpses hanging from nooses. The images of capital punishment for me were too clear.

As Welch points out in her article, the figures are presented “like ghosts [where] they occupied a liminal space between surface and depth, at once present and absent, material and fleeting, visible and invisible, fixed and mobile, past and present.”[1] The “haunted” nature of these ghosts, as it were, represent the unseen, liminal dimension of so many migrants traveling over the Mediterranean—traveling along the fine line between human and ghost, citizen and foreigner, life and death.

And yet the death of these figures were not their own doing. While it is the unpredictable and tumultuous violence of the sea that takes the lives of thousands of refugees, just as the sea itself dislodged the figures in the exhibit, I agree with Welch’s suggestion that End of Dreams places a large burden of the figures’ death on the “postcolonial exclusion and rejection of refugees” by state powers. Rather than the traditional capital punishment of death by hanging, refugees are killed by political rejection and exclusion from sovereign and state powers.

Indeed, this argument parallels the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben around sovereign power and “bare life.” Drawing from political theorist Carl Schmitt, Agamben argues that “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception”—that is, sovereign power operates by creating spaces of inclusion and exclusion, whereby those excluded are cast into a space of “bare life” where they can be killed with impunity.[2] Agamben argues that it is the exclusion from any form of political life (i.e. citizenship, political belonging) that constitutes “bare life”—a space where individuals become unknown, stripped of any recognizable identity and subject to the powers of the sovereign.

The face-less, feature-less nature of the figures in Larsen’s piece similarly represent those stripped to “bare life.” The only marker of their humanity is their figure, which is itself obscured by the cover of ocean. And similar to Larsen’s piece, it may by the sea which dislodges the migrants off a raft, but it is the exclusion of the State which has already killed them.


[2] p. 8, 11, Agamben, G., 1997. Homo Sacer. Paris: Seuil.